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Dame Elisabeth: the end of an era of philanthropy?

The death of one of Australia’s most generous philanthropists overnight has sparked questions about whether other wealthy people should donate more. Is this the end of an era?

The death of Dame Elisabeth Murdoch should spur Australia’s wealthy to examine whether they are being stingy with their millions, some of Australia’s most prominent philanthropists argue.

Dame Elisabeth — who supported over 100 charities — died in her sleep overnight at her farm on the outskirts of Melbourne. She was 103.

Former Microsoft executive Daniel Petre, who hands out millions each year through his Petre Foundation, told Crikey: “She’s one of the greatest philanthropists we’ve ever seen — not just in terms of money, but also the time she gave and her dedication to so many causes. She was always looking to give back. At no stage in her life did she say, ‘I’ve done enough’, even though she could have said that decades ago.”

Petre is urging the Packers, Lowys, Rineharts and the other members of Dame Elisabeth’s family to follow her example. While our best-known billionaires can all point to examples of generosity, he says they compare poorly to counterparts like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates in America.

A billionaire will give a million dollars to charity and people will applaud them — then you realise it’s less than they spend on jet fuel or handbags,” Petre told Crikey. “They give the minimum amount to get away with it.”

Petre says he was shocked to discover during his time on the Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network board that the average household in western Sydney donated a higher proportion of their net worth than the uber-wealthy.

The argument that Australia’s wealthy prefer to give their money away discreetly, he says, is a “really good cover for people who don’t give much”.

If you’re giving the amount you should be you can’t keep it a secret,” he said. ”If the Australian population saw the wealthy being generous philanthropists they would be more sympathetic and not want to cut them down.”

According to Philanthropy Australia CEO Louise Walsh, over 30% of Australians who earn over $1 million a year don’t claim a charitable tax deduction. As well as giving more, Walsh wants the wealthy to follow Dame Elisabeth’s example of “engaged philanthropy”.

It wasn’t just chequebook philanthropy,” Walsh said. “She was never afraid to talk about her giving and that’s a good thing. We really encourage philanthropists to be more public about their giving. It sets an example for others and can inspire others to give.”

Entrepreneur Dick Smith, who says he gives away $1 million a year to charity, says Dame Elisabeth “set an incredible example for the wealthy and people of influence and I hope there’s someone to replace her. I hope she’s not the last of an era. That would be sad. I admire her tremendously. She realised that giving was an obligation. She did it publicly; she didn’t do it secretly.”

According to Smith, wealthy Australians give less than 1% of their annual income to charity compared to 15% in America.

I’m very disappointed that not one of our salaried CEOs is known as a philanthropist — the big bank executives and the heads of the major banks … I’m amazed they get away with it.”

Like Petre, Smith doesn’t buy the claim Australia’s mega-rich give substantial sums away secretly: “I’ve asked all the big charities if they receive substantial anonymous amounts and they say, besides bequests, they don’t really get anything.”

Smith last year wrote to Rupert Murdoch encouraging him to help set up a $1 billion philanthropic foundation named after his mother. The offer was declined.

He’ll never be able to spend all his money,” Smith said. “He’s the most successful Australian businessman ever. It would be wonderful if he could devote the last few years of his life to charity and become one of  Australia’s great philanthropists. I haven’t given up on that. There’s still hope.”

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  • 1
    nullifidian
    Posted Thursday, 6 December 2012 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    The true philanthropists in Australia, and especially in the US, are those performing essential tasks for wages below the poverty line; those who clean the toilets in corporate headquarters for example. If the executives in the finance industries were to give away 90% of their salaries they would still be better off than those working in the age care industries.

  • 2
    zut alors
    Posted Thursday, 6 December 2012 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    In general, Australia’s wealthy appear to be under the misapprehension that they can take it with them.

    In Queensland Chuck Feeney has donated at least $200M to medical research. Unsurprisingly, he’s an American.

  • 3
    Bob the builder
    Posted Thursday, 6 December 2012 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    I don’t believe in philanthropy, I believe in taxation.
    Why should the rich get to choose individually where their excess wealth gets spent? The rest of us have to decide collectively via the taxation system and our parliaments where our money goes - why should the rich be any different?

  • 4
    Posted Thursday, 6 December 2012 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    BOB THE BUILDER: You forget that taxpayers money goes to support all different religious institutions-especially the Catholic church.

    If, and when, we taxpayers can direct where our money goes, almost every charity deserves a bit of help. I bitterly resent my money going towards the Church, but am happy to donate to the odd butterfly or two at the local zoo.

  • 5
    Stevo the Working Twistie
    Posted Thursday, 6 December 2012 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    +1 Bob.

  • 6
    qwerty bluett
    Posted Thursday, 6 December 2012 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    when was the last time any of you gave away millions of dallars? hmm?

  • 7
    zut alors
    Posted Thursday, 6 December 2012 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    qwerty, your point is fallacious - the generosity of donations is proportionate to income as the article points out.

  • 8
    Gerry Hatrick, OAP
    Posted Thursday, 6 December 2012 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    when was the last time any of you gave away millions of dallars? hmm?

    +1 for reading and comprehension:

    Petre says he was shocked to discover during his time on the Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network board that the average household in western Sydney donated a higher proportion of their net worth than the uber-wealthy.

    I’ll answer your question when I have more than a million dollars, thanks

  • 9
    Bob the builder
    Posted Thursday, 6 December 2012 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    @Venise
    I didn’t say it was a good system or that we could direct our dollars exactly as we’d like, but it’s a system we are all a part of and invested in … except the rich, who pay bugger all tax, very often pay low wages, then get to decide which charities to support, rather than paying tax like the rest of us and deciding together through public policy where to direct our common wealth.
    Of course the US has more philanthropists - they’ve always had a huge underclass and a cohort of incredibly rich tax avoiders and some of them feel twinges of guilt about their unjust society and drop a few crumbs. Big deal. I’d prefer a just society any day.

    It’s just like tipping - the US is a tipping culture because service staff are kept poor and servile. Here we aren’t (or weren’t) a tipping culture because working people organised for good wages and conditions and take (or at least used to take) tipping as a degrading insult.

  • 10
    michael crook
    Posted Thursday, 6 December 2012 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    even if they would pay a little tax, that would help. How come a Labor government that cuts supporting parents benefits refuses to tax the wealthy?

  • 11
    Dogs breakfast
    Posted Thursday, 6 December 2012 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

    ”If the Australian population saw the wealthy being generous philanthropists they would be more sympathetic and not want to cut them down.”

    Amen to that brother!

  • 12
    Dogs breakfast
    Posted Thursday, 6 December 2012 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    Thanks qwerty. It always makes things easier when you open your mouth and remove all doubt.

  • 13
    Jim Hart
    Posted Friday, 7 December 2012 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    You don’t have to have a spare million to be philanthropic, you can start at almost any level. It’s more about sharing what you can afford and doing it in a planned way, not just responding to an appeal for the Salvos or bushfires or whatever, though that’s important too.
    As for choosing your charity instead of paying via taxes, that doesn’t diminish the value of the gift or grant. We need both systems and I’m happy to support both. Govt funding through taxation is a very blunt instrument that necessarily favours large organisations and bureaucracies.

  • 14
    Posted Friday, 7 December 2012 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    QWERTY: When was the last time I had millions of dollars to give away?

  • 15
    Posted Friday, 7 December 2012 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    BOB TB: Don’t forget a huge swag of American philanthropists had ancestors who started giving away mega bucks, because they just didn’t have to pay any tax at all.

    Nevertheless, if the day should ever come when an Oz government would say here’s your tax bill please tick the box where you would like the money to go to- It only has to be by category. i.e. Science, medicine, animals, etc, etc. With the Churches at the bottom of the list, and money towards the upkeep of British royals-when they come here, at the second last box-that will be the day when I start to donate towards charity.

    {As a matter of fact I do donate money, but just don’t have enough to be of major importance.}

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